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Western-Belmont Overpass to be Demolished in 2015

 CDOT unveiled updated plans to replace the Western-Belmont overpass.
Bye, Bye Western-Belmont Bridge
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ROSCOE VILLAGE — The Western-Belmont overpass, which has allowed cars to speed over a five-way intersection with Clybourn Avenue for the last 52 years, will be coming down in 2015, according to a plan unveiled Monday night by the Chicago Department of Transportation.

The deteriorating bridge will be replaced not by another overpass, but with a grade-level intersection.

Current standards require wider lanes than when the viaduct was erected; a new bridge would have to be 12 feet wider, affecting businesess and homes in the area, according to Mike Eichten of AECOM, a consulting design and engineering firm working on the project.

The project's scope encompasses not only demolition of the bridge, but reconstruction of Western Avenue between Waveland Avenue to the north and Jones Street to the south (Jones is south of Diversey). Sidewalks will be widened to 13 feet, pedestrian countdown signals will be installed, and trees, benches and bike racks will be added to the streetscape.

CDOT wouldn't provide a cost estimate for the project. But Eichten did say that construction of a new viaduct could reach $40 million, and that the grade-level proposal was less expensive. 

Patty Wetli discussed the bridge's impending demolition on DNAinfo Radio:

Overall construction is expected to last 18 to 24 months, beginning in spring 2015 and wrapping up by the end of 2016 or spring 2017, depending on weather.

"It's going to be painful," said James Colon, a resident of Roscoe Village. "Just getting out of the neighborhood is going to be a problem."

Traffic will be down to one lane in each direction on Western Avenue during the first phase of the project, which includes the viaduct's demolition, expected to take four to six months.

CDOT plans to point drivers to alternate routes along Ashland, Diversey and Logan Boulevard, which Colon said would simply create bottlenecks elsewhere.

The end goal is to create a thoroughfare that does the opposite, CDOT said. The revamped section of Western should ease congestion by developing a more natural traffic flow, according to CDOT project manager Charlene Walsh.

Though drivers now enjoy the sensation of flying over Belmont, that burst of speed typically comes to a screeching halt at Diversey or Roscoe, the viaduct's southern and northern ends, Walsh said.

Eichten said: "Traffic is moving so quickly, there are a lot of crashes. It put a lot of burden on Diversey and Roscoe. That's why we expanded the project to a corridor, so we could make improvements to adjacent intersections."

Residents who attended CDOT's open house, held at Lane Tech College Prep High School, were skeptical that removal of the overpass would ease traffic congestion.

"Western gets very busy, even with the bridge," said Stephanie Blatt, a Roscoe Village resident.

Walsh countered that removal of the overpass would allow for three lanes of traffic moving in each direction during the peak hours of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. — with the additional lanes available for parking the remainder of the day.

"We know how well that works," said Blatt, pointing to a similar configuration on Diversey. "It just takes one [parked] car to mess things up."

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he appreciated CDOT's thorough presentation, which he called a "far cry from what we saw in 2009," at the first public meeting to address the crumbling overpass.

He praised the project's expanded scope and acknowledged that the overpass had become a blight on the neighborhood.

"The whole thing is dingy," Waguespack said.

But he reserved judgment on the grade-level intersection, saying it would be incumbent on CDOT to establish the proper flow of traffic, and said the potential for drivers to use side streets to avoid backups still hadn't been addressed.

"Where do people do their cut-throughs?" he asked. "We'll have to find out right away."

Cut-through traffic was the primary concern of resident Mary Jo Guglielmo, who lives in the viaduct's shadow.

"Right now, everyone goes over," she said. "Cars will try to avoid the intersection and jog down side streets. That doesn't improve the quality of living. It's not going to be safer. My concern now is they really need to look at traffic patterns on side streets."

Waguespack said his office would be prepared to create one-way streets, or switch the direction of existing one-way avenues, in order to discourage or at least slow cut-through traffic.

CDOT's Walsh noted that the plan incorporates raised medians, which were specifically designed to  "eliminate anyone from coming through."

The alderman was also eyeballing CDOT's placement of bumpouts and pedestrian refuge islands to determine how easy it will be for residents to cross Western on foot.

"We need to make sure that people can get over to Mariano's and Clark Park," he said.

Though the open house was aimed at collecting feedback from residents, Walsh did state that the "current configuration has been approved by IDOT."

By the end of the open house, residents had resigned themselves to the loss of the viaduct.

"I get why it's a done deal," said Guglielmo.

But they weren't prepared to give the project their wholehearted support.

Said Colon: "I guess it's a thing of 'the proof is in the pudding.' "

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